At an age when the bottom drops out on most catchers, Jorge Posada had one of the three or four best seasons of his career. He ranked fourth among all major league catchers in VORP, behind a trio of youngsters (Mauer, McCann and Martinez). Best of all, Posada had what was undoubtedly his best defensive season. Whereas Joe Girardi at long last taught Posada how to block the plate in 2005, Tony Pena taught him how to set his feet to throw resulting in the best caught stealing percentage of his career this past season. At age 35, Jorge Posada is still improving his defense and hitting better than most catchers do in their prime.
1B Jason Giambi .253/.413/.558 (.334)
Although Giambi's generally been regarded as a DH for years, 2006 was the first season in his career in which he played more games as a DH than he did in the field. Troublingly, despite the prolonged exposure to the non-position, his alarmingly consistent positional splits persisted. Giambi the DH hit a solid .224/.373/.531 (.301 GPA), but Giambi the first baseman hit a resounding .289/.459/.592 (.355 GPA). Unfortunately, Giambi's defense continued to decline this past season to the point at which the idea of Giambi playing the field more than once or twice a week is untenable.
That's the bad news. The good news is that Giambi, despite the DH-related decrease in batting average, remains one of the most productive hitters in baseball (he had the fifth best EQA in the AL in 2006 and was tied with Chipper Jones for the eleventh best mark in the majors). It seemed unthinkable in the offseason following Giambi's scandal, injury, and illness-riddled 2004 season, but Ga-bombi's 2005 and 2006 seasons, in which he's hit a combined .262/.426/.547 with 69 homers and 200 RBIs, rank with his best. By both EQA and OPS+, Giambi's best seasons, in order, are his final season with the A's in 2001, when he wrongly lost the MVP to Ichiro Suzuki by a mere eight points, the previous year, when he properly won the award, his underappreciated first season with the Yankees in 2002, 2005 and 2006. In chart form that looks like this:
Yes, three of Jason Giambi's five best seasons have come in pinstripes.
The only catch here is that nagging injuries and his poor performance in the field have limited Giambi's overall playing time so that, despite ranking fifth in the AL in the rate stat EQA, he was a mere 19th in the cumulative (and position-based) VORP. During his peak, Giambi came to the plate at least 660 times a year. In 2006, he made just 579 plate appearances. Indeed, by advanced cumulative stats, Giambi's 1999 and 2003 seasons were both more productive than either his 2005 or 2006 seasons. Still, he's a tremendous offensive asset.
2B Robinson Cano .342/.365/.525 (.307)
In a season preview for The Hardball Times, I attempted to predict the hitting lines for each of the Yankee starters. To do so I used the career stats for every player between 25 and 35 years old. For 23-year-old sophomore Robinson Cano, however, I had to improvise a bit. What I came up with was .290/.310/.450. With that estimate, the key component of Cano's offensive game appeared to be his slugging. So when he finished the first two months of the season with an expected .293 average and .318 on-base percentage but a measly .383 slugging, I began to worry. By the time Cano injured his hamstring 25 days later, he had increased his slugging by 56 points, but that was largely due to a 32-point boost in batting average. After five weeks on the shelf, however, Cano returned not only to his powerful rookie form, but beyond it, slugging .635 the rest of the way courtesy of 11 homers and 24 doubles in a mere 53 games. When the season ended, Cano was second on the Yankees in slugging and first on the team with 41 doubles. He also finished third in the AL batting race, just five points behind champ Joe Mauer. On top of all of that, his work with Larry Bowa resulted in a dramatic improvement in his defense as he nearly cut his error total in half.
As for his impatience at the plate, Cano did make mild improvements in his walk rate and pitches seen per plate appearance in 2006, though both were so bad in 2005 they were almost impossible to maintain. While his 2006 rates remained among the worst in baseball, he did see more pitches per plate appearance and draw unintentional walks more frequently than future Hall of Famer Vlad Guerrero. That's something. As is the fact that despite missing five weeks, Cano had more than one and a half times the VORP of the second most productive second baseman in the American League and ranked second only to Chase Utley's outstanding season among major league keystoners.
SS Derek Jeter .343/.417/.483 (.324)
Despite the major injuries suffered by big guns Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, the Yankees won the AL East easily, finishing with the best record in baseball in large part due to their major league best 930 runs scored. During the season it was popular to credit the Yankees' continued success to replacement players such as Melky Cabrera and Andy Phillips. In reality, the Yankees succeeded without their corner outfielders the same way they've won throughout the Joe Torre era, with strength up the middle. Using VORP as a measuring stick, Jorge Posada was the fourth most productive catcher in the majors, Robinson Cano the second most productive second baseman in the majors, Johnny Damon the sixth most productive center fielder in the majors, and Derek Jeter, the team's shortstop, was the third most productive hitter at any position in all of baseball. Ultimately it was Jeter, not Cabrera, and certainly not Phillips, that kept the Yankees not only afloat but at the top of the heap despite the injuries to Matsui and Sheffield. That, plus the fact that he led the AL in VORP is why he should have been the AL MVP.
As it stands, Jeter got screwed in the award voting in a way eerily similar to 1999, when he also should have won the award but didn't. Consider that in 1999, Jeter led the major leagues in VORP, but finished a staggering sixth in the voting. Then, as in 2006, there was a viable alternate choice in Pedro Martinez, but Pedro didn't win either. Instead Ivan Rodriguez, whose VORP total was barely more than half of either Jeter or Martinez's took home the award, beating Pedro by 13 points despite having one fewer first-place vote. This year, Jeter lost to Justin Morneau, who had less than two thirds of Jeter's VORP total, despite the presence of superior alternatives in Joe Mauer and Johan Santana, the latter of whom was within a run of Jeter's VORP total. Mauer and Santana finished sixth and seventh respectively, while it was Jeter who this time came in second a mere 14 points behind the winner.
As for Jeter's performance on the field, he hit the ground running with a .398/.505/.648 April and, save for a power outage in May, never let up. He hit .345/.427/.462 before the break and .342/.405/.507 after, and along the way he stole a team-beat and career-high 34 bases at an outstanding 87 percent clip. Oh, and he won another undeserved Gold Glove as well. Go figure.
3B Alex Rodriguez .290/.392/.523 (.318)
The first piece I ever wrote for Bronx Banter came a full year before I joined Alex as the official co-author of this blog. It was originally to be a profile of Alfonso Soriano, but as I began working, the Yankees dealt Sori to Texas in a mind-blowing blockbuster deal for all-time great Alex Rodriguez. In attempting to temper expectations for Rodriguez--who never was the best player in the game, or in the running for greatest shortstop of all time--I discovered a slight, but troubling downward trend in Rodriguez's numbers. Asked to follow up my initial piece at the end of the 2004 season, I took a look at that decline, finding a parallel in the career of Ty Cobb. Here's my conclusion:
One might hope that Rodriguez would be able to follow Ty Cobb's lead and have one or two more MVP-quality seasons before settling into his thirtysomething groove. Such optimism is reinforced by the fact that his 2005 campaign will not be burdened by the distractions of switching positions and being the Yankees' Savior of the Year (a title still reserved for Carlos Beltran lest it trickle down to Carl Pavano). Unfortunately, the ability gap between Cobb and Rodriguez is such that it seems foolhardy to expect such a renaissance from the Yankee third baseman. Rather, Yankee fans will likely have to put up with a third baseman who plays gold glove defense, is a threat on the bases (lost in the fallout from The Collapse/Choke/Slapgate is the fact that Rodriguez single-handedly manufactured the winning run of the ALDS to cap off an MVP performance), and hits a lot like Derek Jeter (post-1999) but with about ten extra homers per season. They should all be such disappointments!
So what happened? Rodriguez had one more MVP season, deserving and winning the award in 2005, and in 2006 he hit .290/.392/.523. Compare that to Jeter's .311/.383/.459 composite line for the six seasons between his MVP-worthy 1999 and 2006 seasons. Add in those extra ten homers per season and you boost Jeter's slugging to .525. Bingo.
The rub is that Rodriguez is no longer playing Gold Glove defense. For all the undue criticism of his performance at the plate, the real issue concerning the Yankees' most recent MVP is the fact that his defense at third was atrocious in 2006, with Rodriguez doubling his error total in 100 fewer innings at the hot corner while his range fell well below league average. Given his struggles on defense, complaining about Alex Rodriguez's hitting in small sample splits such as "close and late" is like worrying that your toes are cold while your hair is on fire.
That said, here's hoping Rodriguez's poor defensive showing was a fluke, the result more of the head games that plagued his season than of any mechanical or physical instability. In the meantime, note that he lead AL third baseman in VORP by more than three quarters of Troy Glaus's second place total and boasted the second best VORP total on the Yankees in 2006, being outpaced only by Jeter's MVP-quality season. Meanwhile, Soriano, a vastly inferior player who is less than six months younger than Rodriguez, just signed a deal with the Cubs that will take him through his age-38 season with a higher average annual salary than what the Yankees are paying Rodriguez.
Incidentally, you can add Rodriguez and Giambi to the reasons why the Yankees were able to keep winning without Sheff and Matsui. In fact, the hitting lines of the Yankees' five starting infielders is worth another look before we get to the bench players:
1B Andy Phillips .240/.281/.394 (.238) 246 AB
My man Andy finally got the shot he'd long since earned in 2006, though it took major injuries to two of the team's top hitters in order to make it happen. A former second and third baseman, Andy earned high marks for his fielding around the bag, but the same sense of desperation that made him exciting in the field seemed to sabotage him at the plate. Always a patent hitter in the minors, Phillips, convinced you don't walk off the Yankee bench, was overeager at the plate and outside of a couple of hot streaks, did little to quiet doubters who had him pegged as a quadruple-A hitter. Those hot streaks were fun, though. Over seven games as May turned into June, Phillips went 14 for 30 with three homers and 11 RBIs, and he hit .333/.347/.623 for the month as a whole (note the utter lack of plate discipline), knocking three triples over the course of five starts at the end of the month. If nothing else, Phillips managed to spend an entire season in the major leagues for the first time at age 29, and there still remains a chance that he could wind up the short side of a righty-lefty first base platoon with Aaron Guiel in 2007. If so, let's hope the passing of his last-chance rookie jitters and his reunion with Columbus hitting coach Kevin Long are the cure for what ails his batting eye, and in turn his bat.
1B Craig Wilson .212/.248/.365 (.212) 104AB
As an encore to the Bobby Abreu deal, Brian Cashman acquired the highly regarded Wilson from the Pirates for the unwanted and unused Shawn Chacon. Unlike Abreu, however, Wilson struggled in New York. Arriving as the hitter Andy Phillips could be, he quickly turned into the hitter Phillips was. Like, Phillips, his considerable plate discipline went out the window in the Bronx and his effectiveness at the plate went along with it. In the end, Wilson failed to outperform Phillips' disappointing showing and will likely sign elsewhere as a free agent this winter. That said, there's a strong chance that he'll right himself with his new team, making the Yankees look foolish for allowing 104 at-bats to outweigh his previous 1858.
1B Aaron Guiel .256/.337/.439 (.274) 82AB
Guiel played more games in the outfield than at first base for the Yankees in 2006, but it was his surprising facility as the left-handed compliment to righties Wilson and Phillips at first that made Guiel a most intriguing addition to the Yankee roster. When the Yankees picked Guiel off of waivers from the Royals in early July, I set the bar for success at a split of .280/.350/.460 against right-handed pitching. For the season (including 50 at-bats with the Royals during which he hit for more power, but with a lower average), Guiel hit .257/.362/.468 (.280 GPA) against righties while playing both first base and all three outfield positions. I'd call that success. Given the sorry state of the Yankee bench in recent years, Guiel is a nice player to have at the league minimum for 2007.
IF Miguel Cairo .239/.280/.320 (.231) 222 AB
The Yankees got something of a career year out of Cairo in 2004, then botched resigning him, leading to the eminently regrettable Tony Womack deal. Cairo fell back to replacement level as a Met in 2005, but Brian Cashman, perhaps overeager to right the previous offseasons's supposed wrong, rather than considering Cairo a bullet dodged, gave him a million-dollar contract for 2006. Cairo rewarded Cashman's good deed by repeating his Met performance almost exactly. Here's hoping the Yankees have learned their lesson. Incidentally, Cairo credited his improvement to league average in 2004 to Yankee hitting coach Don Mattingly. That relationship was likely part of Cashman's reasoning in bringing Cairo back in 2006. One wonders if Mattingly's failure to recapture the magic with Cairo, fair or not, had something to do with his reassignment to bench coach for 2007.
IF Nick Green .240/.296/.387 (.241) 75AB
Proof of what both Steve Goldman and I had written before the season, Green--whom the Yankees purchased from the Devil Rays in late May, thus defining the term "replacement level"--outproduced million-dollar Miguel Cairo in 2006. The primary difference between Green and Cairo is that Cairo has more speed while Green has more pop. Green had hamstring injuries to Robinson Cano and Cairo and a Bubba Crosby-like debut (HR, 2 BB, SB, and a pair of great plays at second base at home in the series finale against the Mets) to thank for his playing time. Sadly, he got cocky in the offseason and rejected a minor league assignment, opting instead for free agency. He won't be back.
IF Andy Cannizaro 2 for 8, 1 BB
A surprising September call-up, the off-the-radar Cannizaro served as an infrequent defensive replacement at second, short and third, picking up a single start at the hot corner and knocking out an even more unexpected home run in the eighth inning of a blowout win against the Devil Rays. Five years from now you won't believe that someone named Andy Cannizaro ever played in 13 games for the Yankees.
C Kelly Stinnett .228/.282/.304 (.212) 79AB
Backup catchers are not unlike journeymen middle relievers pitchers. Their production fluctuates wildly from year to year and, beyond the very best of their breed (say, Gregg Zaun and Todd Pratt in this case), there's no telling what any particular one will give you in any given season. Such was the case with Stinnett. Brought in to replace the outlandishly awful season John Flaherty had in 2005, Stinnett managed only that and was run out of town mid-season for a nearly identical player.
C Sal Fasano .143/.222/.286 (.184) 49AB
Realizing that back-up catchers are a bit of craps shoot, Brian Cashman opted to roll the dice again mid-season and acquired Fasano from the Phillies for Class-A middle-infield non-prospect Hector Made in late July. Sal's Vincent Schiavelli eyes and Thurman Munson moustache were a hoot, the latter even inspiring a few of the rowdier Yankees to let their own upper lips go unshaven for awkward amounts of time. But despite his unexpected agility behind the plate, when standing beside it Fasano actually managed to under perform the meager standard set by Stinnett in the first half of the season.
C Wil Nieves 0 for 6
Nieves made the opening day roster because he was out of options and the Yankee organization was so incredibly thin in terms of major league-ready catching that they couldn't afford to lose a player as otherwise insignificant as Nieves. Four days into the season they picked Koyie Hill off waivers from the Diamondbacks, making Nieves expendable. Once Nieves cleared waivers and was safely back with the organization in Columbus, the Yankees designated Hill for assignment. Hill also cleared and by the season's second week the Yankees were rid of both of them. They spent the year splitting time with Ben Davis behind the plate in Columbus, Nieves's six September appearances were the only major league playing time either saw in 2006.